August 30, 2015

Traffickers: Ship of Fools

A friend of mine wanted me to give him an introduction to Korean movies and rather than showing him one of the great ones — like Oldboy, The Host or Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter... and Spring — I decided to screen a movie that I'd watched earlier this week: Kim Hong-seon's Traffickers, a pulpy noir about low-level smugglers who switch from dealing in black market organ donations to illegal drugs then back again. To me, Traffickers, more than the three earlier films cited, reflects what's kept me so engrossed in Korean cinema for a decade. What's good is very good.

Yet, on second viewing, I realized that much of what I liked about Traffickers may be kind of insider-y: the casting of Lim Chang-jung, an actor best known for comedies, as a gang leader, the cultural commentary about China, the scarcity of gunfire... Even the way Choi Daniel plays his role as a nerdy insurance agent like a pretty boy K-pop star looking to break into film. Which isn't to say Traffickers was totally lost on my friend here. He dug the Keyzer Sose plot twist, the DePalma-esque filming of violence, the ludicrous conceit of a cruise line that harvests its poor clientele for kidneys and livers, the doomed chorus of losers unlucky in love and money, the seediness, the perversion. I don't know that I made a final convert at my home theater but he did say afterwards that he'd like me to show him a Korean rom-com next time so I probably will need to pull out the big guns: Attack the Gas Station 2, Jeon Woochi: The Taoist Wizard, Le Grand Chef.

Come to think of it, I doubt that I'd be a Korean movie addict if all I'd seen were enjoyable but less-than-mind-blowing thrillers like Traffickers, Confession of Murder and No Fears for the Dead. These movies have sustained me in between masterpieces like Peppermint Candy and The King and the Clown. As sustenance, they're delicious. As I said to my friend beforehand, this is a B-movie that makes you realize just how good B really is in Korean cinema. B means "better than most" not "below A." So what if it doesn't mean "brilliant."

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